From a distance the drama unfolding in the Wisconsin state capital over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to end the collective bargaining rights of certain public-sector unions seems just another chapter in the ongoing partisan wrangling between Republicans and Democrats. It is, however, a seminal moment in the devolution of workers’ rights that in the long run could have major ramifications for the economic security of hundreds of thousands of Black workers. The battle may be in Madison but the war is about to be waged across the country as Republican governors, supported by corporations and wealthy donors launch an offensive against labor unions.
This moment has been decades in the making; perhaps the “warning shot” was when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and killed their union. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat against organized labor, with a concerted effort to sever the American worker from union representation. Union membership in the private sector has long declined but in the public sector - teachers, government employees, police and firefighters - have continued to be a visible and active presence in organized labor. And, it has been public sector unions that have been engaged in the political process, aligning mostly with the Democratic Party.
Therein is the source of Republican resentment and retaliation.
Much like the influence and money of corporate America in Republican politics, labor has been a steady pipeline of votes and dollars behind Democratic candidates. For some time the GOP has been angling to neutralize unions and they have found a convenient subterfuge in the current fiscal crises impacting states. After spending years demonizing unions, blaming labor for the fiscal instability of localities and states, and ridiculing union leadership, Republicans have struck oil in the current economic downturn. So much so that Governor Walker has colleagues across the country following his lead.
Meanwhile, what is being overlooked in all the tough talk is how Black workers will be further marginalized if public sector unions in states across the country lose their collective bargaining rights. Already facing a wage and benefits disparity compared to white workers, Blacks have historically used union membership as the pathway to good wages and eventually the middle class. As industry faded in our nation’s urban core, the one conduit that remained to middle class wages was unionized public sector employment. Now, that appears to be threatened.
Lurking behind Governor Walker’s assault on public sector unions are the state’s major corporations, and according to some news reports, the infamous Koch brothers, David and Charles of Koch Industries, two active and aggressive Republican benefactors. With big money behind the Wisconsin anti-union measure, the right is signaling its intention to run this play in state capitols across the country where Republicans have governors or hold legislative majorities. It appears the motivation is the 2012 presidential election and the goal is to de-fund labor unions to sever them from the political process. If nothing else, the current battle will drain the coffers of unions at a time when opposing forces are gaining in strength.
It is times like these that require good people to take a stand. The “disappearance” of Wisconsin Democratic legislators to avoid considering Governor Walker’s proposal speaks volumes to the sense of desperation evident among workers and Democrats. This is truly a “line in the sand moment” and for that we reason we encourage union members across the country to heed the words of Frederick Douglass - agitate, agitate, agitate!